At first, Reed Morano wasn’t considered a big-enough name to direct The Handmaid’s Tale. “I met with MGM and I met with Hulu, and it was kind of like, ‘That’s a big kid’s job,’ you know?” the filmmaker tells me over the phone in late August. The Margaret Atwood adaptation, which spent years in development, was earmarked as Hulu’s entry into the Prestige TV wars; with beloved source material, television’s most acclaimed performer, and an unexpected dose of uncomfortable timeliness, The Handmaid’s Tale was virtually guaranteed to make waves. But even before the election or Elisabeth Moss’s involvement, Morano was hooked by the script, which is why she pushed for the opportunity to pitch executives in the first place. “My agents were like, ‘They’re after a very big director right now, so just tell them you like it,’” she laughs.
After spending the bulk of her career as a cinematographer — she was inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers in 2013, as one of just 12 women, and the youngest member at the time, and the job remains her primary designation on IMDb — Morano, now 40, had just recently transitioned into directing. Her debut feature, Meadowland, an indie drama starring Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, was shot in just 22 days and released in October 2015. From there, she began to work in episodic television, on prestige-heavy HBO series like Looking, Vinyl, and, most notably, parts of Beyoncé’s HBO special/visual album, Lemonade. By the time she was lobbying for the Handmaid’s job, Morano had directed episodes of acclaimed shows like Billions and Halt and Catch Fire, but she still hadn’t taken on the daunting task of building a brand-new series from the ground up, a milestone for even the most experienced TV directors.
“Once episodic directors come in, it’s a little different. You are coming in as a hired gun. This is someone else’s house; you’re gonna come in and you’re gonna not reinvent the wheel, but hopefully leave it better than you came,” Morano explains of the TV directing process. “The beginning is where you have the control, and where you have the voice as a storyteller.” Hence why the job was important enough that producers were reluctant to offer it to a relative novice. Eventually, Morano wouldn’t just direct the pilot; she’d oversee Handmaid’s first three episodes, nearly a third of the drama’s freshman season.
To get there, Morano was persistent. “Time passed, and I just kept checking in with my agents: ‘What’s the deal with Handmaid’s Tale? Did they hire anyone yet? Did they hire anyone yet?’” she recounts. “At a certain point, I was just like, ‘Walk away. Maybe I’m not gonna get that opportunity, because it’s such a high-profile job.’” But then she read that Moss, who’d had a supporting role in Meadowland and with whom Morano had remained friendly, had been cast as Offred, the “Handmaid” whose narration introduces the reader to the repressive theocracy known as Gilead. Morano emailed the actress to congratulate her, mentioned she’d been trying to pitch on the series, and about a week later, got the call inviting her to do so. “I think the way it went down was, she mentioned my name, but [executive producer] Warren [Littlefield] already had my name on a list,” Morano explains. “It kind of worked out where they decided to start looking for a new voice, because they felt like it might benefit this particular show. That was lucky for me, because they were willing to take a big risk and hire somebody who hadn’t directed a pilot before.”
With her opening trio of episodes, Morano guided The Handmaid’s Tale through the Peak TV noise to critical acclaim, despite some late-season stumbles. Handmaid’s channeling of a very particular set of political fears may have been accidental, but the harrowing urgency it conveys through the story of one woman’s suffering is not. Morano’s direction was instrumental to establishing the series’ arresting, insistently specific tone — and, in part, for the 13 nominations it received this Emmys season, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead and Guest Actress (Alexis Bledel won the latter this past weekend; Elisabeth Moss is likely to win the former on Sunday), and Morano’s own. She’s not even the only Handmaid’s director being considered for Sunday night’s honor; Kate Dennis was also nominated for Season 1’s penultimate “The Bridge.” Handmaid’s is the only series in its director’s category to receive multiple nods.
To start the adaptation process, Morano put together an exhaustive treatment, with “pages and pages” on the use of sound design alone. Despite her meticulous preparation, the overall philosophy Morano describes to me is much more intuitive. “It was on feeling,” Morano replies when I ask for specifics on the show’s sound. “There was no rule for that. It was more like, when I needed to put the audience more into her perspective, then I would utilize sound to create that atmosphere. But unfortunately, there’s no formula for that, because it’s based on an emotional need on a scene-by-scene basis.”
Behind all those individual decisions is an overarching standard that Morano rigorously applied to every scene. “The idea of making a first-person point-of-view story is not, like, such an original concept; that’s how Margaret wrote the book,” Morano admits. “But the thing is, there’s a tendency — a lot of books are written in first person, and when books are translated to film or television, they aren’t always told cinematically in a first-person way.” The goal became to put the viewer in Moss-as-Offred’s perspective by whatever means Morano had at her disposal: “You have to think a little bit harder about how you cover scenes, and in particular, many scenes where nothing’s really happening. There’s just a person standing in a room with a bonnet on, and there’s paragraphs and paragraphs of voice-over. It’s about putting yourself in the character’s POV and thinking about, ‘What is she focusing on in that moment?’ Those are the things you shoot.”
Sometimes, grounding the audience in forced-surrogate Offred and her experiences required a very literal choice. Hence the series’ signature shot: an extreme close-up, captured with a wide lens, of Moss’s almost impossibly expressive face, framed for emphasis by the white-winged bonnet that Handmaids must wear as part of their uniform. Possibly the most sickening shot of an already extremely stressful pilot is filmed directly from Offred’s perspective: during the Ceremony, a monthly ritualized rape in which Gilead’s Commanders attempt to impregnate the women their regime has forced into de facto slavery, Morano’s camera looks down Moss’s crimson-clad body at the Commander thrusting in slow motion. The sound is muffled, true to Morano’s attention to detail; the scene is crucial to communicating the horror of Gilead’s dystopia.
World-building was another key component of Morano’s duties as pilot director. To create the mood of a rigidly governed autocratic society, “there would be very symmetrical, claustrophobic framings that feel disconcerting in their symmetry,” as she explains. Remember, for example, the image of two identically dressed Handmaids, stripped of their individuality, walking side by side to the grocery store, or the stately yet airless interiors of the mansion where Offred is stationed. The symmetry contrasts with the more verité tone of Offred’s point of view, whether in present day or in flashbacks. The very first scene of the pilot, a chase scene in which Offred (then June), her husband, and their daughter attempt to cross the Canadian border, is memorably shot with a handheld camera, with a frantic shakiness that causes the stillness of Offred’s current cell to come as even more of a shock.
Morano also worked closely with showrunner Bruce Miller, producers Littlefield and Moss, production designer Julie Berghoff, and costume designer Ane Crabtree to make creative decisions that don’t typically fall under a TV director’s job description. “I think there’s this idea that, when you come in as a pilot director, you’re just setting the look,” Morano sighs. “And it’s like, no no no. You’re not just setting the look! You’re creating the characters with the actors! You are the first person to guide them through their first scenes, to work out with them who they’re gonna be! You’re the person working with the production designer, and the cinematographer, and the costume designer!” Morano and Berghoff decided jointly, for example, to make the mansion’s living room “just the tiniest bit of a shade off” from the dress its mistress, Serena Joy, wears at all times; Serena is superficially in her domain, but there’s a subtle cue she’s not entirely at ease in her own home. “I’m looking at it from not only a directorial perspective, but from a cinematographer’s perspective,” she says. “What’s going to be really striking on camera?”
Now that she’s a full-time director with multiple features in the pipeline — including The Rhythm Section, a “Jason Bourne–type” drama starring Blake Lively, and I Think We’re Alone Now, a postapocalyptic story with Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage to be released next year — Morano’s background as a cinematographer has proved useful in other ways. It’s been a practical help, giving Morano “a front-row seat in a million different scenarios” that left her with the resourcefulness and know-how to soldier through TV’s compressed shooting schedule. The Handmaid’s Tale pilot was shot in 12 days, with the second and third episodes allotted eight days apiece.
But Morano’s years of operating the camera have proved a boon creatively as well. “I always felt like a connection between the camera and the actors is a very intimate connection when done correctly,” she posits. “I spent a lot of years honing that skill for other directors, where I could get really close to the characters with the camera — not just physically, but emotionally. That was a great gift. I learned how to be sensitive with the actors and also understand them, to be able to shoot them in a way that allowed them to have the freedom to take risks and express themselves, where they always felt supported and that they could do anything.”
Morano’s relative lack of directorial experience may have initially been a strike against her; in practice, she argues, it’s only made her a better director. “When you’ve only directed things, you don’t have the chance to have that experience on other people’s jobs and take that risk — because when you’re directing, the stakes are so high for you,” she says. Instead, Morano has cultivated a more personalized ethos she brought along with her to the director’s chair — and soon, enough, the Emmys. Her logic is simple: “If you can be free with the camera and flexible, then really amazing things can happen in front of the camera.”